Report to Washington State Parks Commission shows barriers for Black people outdoors

By Courtney Flatt (Northwest News Network)
April 17, 2022 1 p.m.

Trina Baker didn’t grow up hiking, camping or adventuring in the snow. However, as soon as she began walking outdoors with GirlTrek, a program designed to get Black women outdoors, Baker said she fell in love with nature.

“Hiking has been my spiritual place,” Baker said at a Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission work session last week in Ilwaco, Washington, near Cape Disappointment State Park.


Now, Baker has made part of her mission to get other Black Washingtonians to head outdoors.

A recent survey by the Black Washingtonians Workgroup on Outdoor Recreation found fewer than 1.5% of State Parks visitors are Black.

Some barriers included safety concerns, a lack of access to transportation, and access to outdoor equipment, which can be expensive.

A rainbow curves above a coastal lighthouse, with the ocean in the background.

Cape Disappointment State Park

Udo S / Flickr Creative Commons

The 12-member workgroup surveyed Black Washingtonians about these barriers to participating in outdoor recreation. In addition, the group presented potential solutions to lower those barriers.

Reco Bembry, the workgroup’s facilitator, said learning more about these barriers is a critical conversation. However, he said, this discussion should be only the beginning.

“It’s a very critical conversation to have about ways to create greater humanity for our citizens, and I think outdoor recreation serves to do that a lot,” Bembry said.

The workgroup reviewed at least 76 scholarly articles, he said.

Talking to Black people, the group found at least 57 barriers to getting outdoors. The biggest concern, Bembry said, is safety, especially for parents taking children outside.

“Outdoor Recreating While Black, in Washington, is a modern-day safety hazard,” Bembry said.

To help with potential hazards, a Black couple, Anthony and Marlie Love, created a travel show that rates how safe and comfortable they feel while traveling around the Pacific Northwest, similar to the green book that guided travelers across the country.

Black people has faced more than 100 years of barriers to recreating in state parks, which were created through systematic racism and white supremacy, he said.

“Parks were set up specifically for people that don’t look like me,” Bembry said. “When parks and recreation as a whole was set up, it was a place for white citizens to go to get away from this diversity in the urban settings.”

In addition, he said, laws and norms have led to the oppression of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or BIPOC, Washingtonians in the outdoors.

Now, parks have changed, Bembry said, which is something he’s noticed after spending around six decades outside.

“I also can still feel the barriers that exist,” he said.

However, Bembry said the racist system that set up parks is changing slowly.

“It’s like turning a cruise ship. It takes time,” he said.


In addition, adequate transportation can become a major barrier to getting people outside, as well as discretionary money for entrance fees, gas, and outdoor clothing, Bembry said.

To help with some of those struggles, Bembry and Baker recently held two outdoor events for Black Washingtonians, with transportation, food and entrance fees covered by Black Washingtonian groups and businesses.

Meeting up at a specific location to travel together can reduce transportation issues, Bembry said. In addition, communicating plans in-depth beforehand helps people understand what to expect, he said.

Good advertising, for example, attracted 68 people to a snow tubing trip in March — it was designed for 30 people.

“That’s a good problem to have,” Baker said.

Bembry said Black people tend to trust community members who are planning and leading events, such as Black People Who Hike or Outdoor Afro. These groups can help people learn how to get outdoors, a significant barrier when first starting out, Bembry said. People seem to be more comfortable initially going outdoors in large groups with 10 or more people, he said.

“You’d be surprised about how many people in multiple communities around this country don’t know how to set up a tent,” Bembry said. “These are simple learning lessons that a lot of people are uncomfortable with and just need to learn.”

A little bit of help from more experienced people can go a long way, he said.

Experienced community members also can help Black people overcome generations of what Bembry called historical trauma, which leads to a fear of nature, Bembry said. He said he still remembers his grandmother telling him not to go into the woods at night.

“A lot of folks are overcoming that fear,” he said. “It takes one, two or three trips for folks to really get over that completely. The risk and reward function kicks in about the second or third trip.”

In addition, equipment costs can create a hardship for people first looking to head outdoors, Bembry said.

For example, he said, hiking boots can cost $200 to $300.

For her part, Commissioner Sophia Danenberg, the only Black member of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, said it’s also hard to know where to buy equipment when first heading outdoors. She purchased her first outdoor equipment from Goodwill, including an external-framed backpack formerly used by the Boy Scouts.

Moreover, Washington State Parks needs more inclusivity in its own hiring, volunteer development, and vendor partnerships, said Chevon Powell, a member of the workgroup who owns the outdoor event company Golden Brick Events.

Earlier in the meeting, Valerie Roberts, State Parks Volunteer Program manager, said the Volunteer Program is building relationships with new volunteers from many communities in Washington.

For her part, Danenberg said State Parks isn’t diverse in its employment or volunteers. At an event in Goldendale last week, she said she saw one other person of color.

“I’ve got to say, I saw one Black woman, and just as I was about to be like, ‘Hey Girl!’ when I realized that she was part of Gov. Inslee’s security detail,” Danenberg said.

To increase diversity, equity and inclusion when dealing with the public, she suggested increasing diversity training and the diversity of camp hosts at state parks.

To make camp hosting easier, Commissioner Mike Latimer said State Parks could look at creating camp host positions in places with yurts or cabins so that hosts don’t have to buy their own RVs.

However, Danenberg said, it’s difficult to bring in more diverse volunteers.

“You’re effectively asking for free labor from people who have been denied the ability to build generational wealth,” Danenberg said.

Next, Bembry said, the state needs to study more deeply how Black Washingtonians recreate outdoors, including focus groups and a more extensive survey of people who don’t already visit state parks.

“Reconnecting with nature is an inalienable right,” Bembry said.